Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23-25
For I received from the Lord the teaching that I passed on to you: that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took a piece of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and said, "This is my body, which is for you. Do this in memory of me." In the same way, after the supper he took the cup and said, "This cup is God's new covenant, sealed with my blood. Whenever you drink it, do so in memory of me."

God's love when we need it the most

A couple of years ago there was an article in The Lutheran magazine about a retired pastor of the LCA. His name - Ike Smit. When he was 17 years old he came to faith in Christ after hearing Dr Oswald Hoffmann on the Lutheran Hour radio program. He had grown up in a home without God and when he heard Oswald Hofmannís message he says, "God changed my life there and then; he turned it upside down".

Predictably, when he told his father that he was going to the seminary after he finished his university studies, he was kicked out of home and financial support for his studies was withdrawn. During the Second World War he fought with Dutch army and describes the five days of hell on the battlefield. He was arrested by the Nazis and spent two and a half year in Dachau Concentration Camp. Dachau was a living hell.

He tells of finding other Christians in Dachau and how they gave one another strength and support. I want to read to you in particular tonight his account of the one and only time he was able to have Holy Communion in Dachau.
He wrote,
"We had no altar, no chalice, no wine, no bread, no anything, so we had to improvise. A wooden box became an altar, and a few pieces of dirty newspaper served as the linen. Somebody found a tin in which was a stale army biscuit Ė the bread. The tin Ė the chalice. And water would become wine. We believed that if Jesus could turn water into wine at the Cana wedding, he could turn a biscuit and water into bread and wine, his body and blood.

All the while the Nazi soldiers were banging on the door, trying to get in. They had peered through the windows and seen a group of about a hundred men gathered together, which was illegal. But they could not get in. An invisible hand was keeping them out.

As soon as the communion service was over the soldiers burst in. We were all given a severe beating" says Ike. "But that service was wonderful. It was the most marvellous communion service in all my life". (The Lutheran, April 2006)

There in extreme or hostile surroundings the meal of God's love is celebrated.

Ikeís experience has been shared by many Christians at different times in history. In many ways Holy Communion has been a meal of Christís suffering for the suffering.
Because of persecution by the authorities, the early Christians held their Holy Communion services in secret.
During the years of Communist oppression in Russia and China, Christians had to meet in homes, abandoned buildings, forests, even in caves to worship and celebrate Communion.
Jesus himself instituted the Lordís Supper in the midst of danger and hostility Ė on the same night in which he too was arrested and beaten, like those prisoners in Dachau.

As you listen to stories about people celebrating communion in such extreme circumstances where their lives are at risk, we could ask ourselves, "Was it really necessary to take Communion at that moment when it was so dangerous to do so Ė couldnít they have waited?"

Think of those in Dachau Concentration camp. They were enduring the worst that one human could inflict upon another. No, they couldnít wait.
They needed their Lord.
They needed to celebrate and experience Christís presence with them, in the middle of their degradation.
They needed to feel Godís friendship and love for them in the midst of all the hatred being poured out on them.
They needed to be comforted and strengthened to face the misery around them.

This is where you always find Jesus Ė life in the midst of death, holiness in the midst of filth, love in a place of unspeakable hatred. This was their meal of hope, a connection with Godís promise for their future.

In the movie Shooting Dogs (a true story) a Catholic priest is sheltering hundreds of refugees in a school during the terrible genocidal civil war in Rwanda. The situation is hopeless. Hundreds of men with macheteís and guns surround the school. What does the priest do? He gathers the people together for the Eucharist - Holy Communion. For some of the children itís there first communion. After receiving communion the priest referring to the danger that is threatening them all says, "We have been strengthened in this Eucharist. Ö Go in peace."

Was it really necessary to have Communion just at that moment when surrounded by evil of the worst kind? For those people that day that meal brought into their hearts once again God's love and peace in the face of so much hatred, anger and violence. They were facing death but Christ was there with them.

It might be hard for us to understand some of this Ė how Christians could long for Christís body and blood so much even putting their own lives at risk to do so.
In Australia most people donít understand what itís like to be really hungry because we have always lived in times of plenty.
Likewise we have access to Holy Communion every week; it is always available and even if we are too sick to come here to the church we can have Communion brought to us at home. We donít really understand what itís like to not be able to have the Lordís Supper. Perhaps the closest we get to longing for Christís body and blood in Communion is during a lengthy period of hospitalisation and sickness when things havenít really gone so well for us that we begin to feel the need for the strength and assurance that Holy Communion gives us. We need to feel in our hands and taste in our mouths once again that Christ is right here with us in our time of trial.

What Ikeís story shows us is that, whether we realise or feel it or not, this gift from Jesus to us (his own body and blood) is a vital life-line. It is a "means of grace", through which Christ himself keeps us united with him in faith and strengthens us for living. And so it becomes a very precious part of our Christian life. Itís like we need to have God's love and presence beam down on us in a very personal and special way through the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine Ė his very body and blood. We need to know that God will not leave us alone but is present in our lives and Holy Communion is a tangible way in which God does this for us.

And so in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul carefully passes on to his readers that Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine not just in a spiritual sense, but it is his true body and blood, it is the same body and blood that was given and shed on the cross of Calvary, now given for God's people so that there in Dachau, in the filth and fear, those holy words could be spoken over a stale biscuit and a tin of water, and Godís people could be strengthened and comforted.
Or in Rwanda as the refugees faced inevitable death they go out in peace knowing that evil men may have their own way with them but they are in God's everlasting arms of love.
He gives us his true body and blood so that in our daily lives, in the filth and fear of sin, trouble and strife, we are strengthened and comforted with Jesusí presence and love and grace in our lives. In the Lutheran Confessions Holy Communion is described as
"the great comfort for all sorrowing hearts".

Christ's body and blood is for those who feel hopeless, for the sick, for those in pain, ashamed or humiliated or lonely. The body and blood of Christ is for the grieving. In his body and blood he comes close to us and assures us that we do are not alone in our pain Ė he is here with us.

Perhaps too often we only think of Communion in terms of sin and forgiveness. Donít get me wrong. In the sacrament we receive the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sin. As we eat and drink we are again connected to Christ on the cross and receive again what he did for us on that first Good Friday. We are joined with Christ on the cross and there our sinfulness dies with him. In Communion Christ gives himself to us when we feel guilty; when we feel the most unworthy and undeserving. No matter how badly we have sinned, Communion is pure grace, undeserved love.

But there is more. In Holy Communion we receive the body and blood of the living Christ Ė the one who lives now and rules the universe Ė the one who surrounds us with his love even when it seems there is nothing but lovelessness around us. In Communion Jesus reminds us,
"I am with you always".
"My love for you will never stop".
"Even if you meet with insurmountable difficulties, even death itself, I will be right by your side".

Like those desperate souls in Dachau or Rwanda, like the hungry souls all through history and all over the world, we too lift up our empty hands tonight, to be given the greatest gift ever given to human beings, the body and blood of Christ.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
9th April 2009

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